`MERS Gets Out of hand’

By Jung Min-ho

Given its unusually high infection and relative fatality rates, it is likely that the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) coronavirus has mutated in Korea, an infectious disease expert said Tuesday.

“I suspect that the virus has adapted here. Spread is very unusual and the level of contagion is very high,” Insitut Pasteur Korea CEO Hakim Djaballah told The Korea Times.

2015-0604! `MERS Gets Out of hand'

Hakim Djaballah CEO of Insitut Pasteur Korea

“But it isn’t clear yet because we don’t have any sequence information from the man who visited the Middle East.”

Djaballah urged Korea’s Ministry of Health and Welfare to start genetically sequencing the virus found here immediately, which he believes will be vital in slowing down progression of the deadly disease and ultimately developing drugs to treat it.

Sequencing the virus will help the ministry figure out whether it is closely related to the one found in Saudi Arabia, where Korea’s first MERS patient visited in April, he said.

“It would provide evidence if it is the same species infecting people in Korea or if it has evolved through mutation,” he said. “It is also important to have the information on patient zero as a means to track how the infections are propagating — randomly or through specific people related to patient zero and hospital care givers.”

MERS is something of a medical mystery. The disease is widely found in dromedary camels. But most MERS patients have no contact with the animals. Also, questions remain on where and how the camels get the virus in the first place.

“There is no treatment for MERS, and since it is relatively a new virus, little drug discovery research has been done on it,” Djaballah said.

He said he will soon meet with ministry officials to discuss ways for possible research.

“Growing and testing the virus against all FDA approved drugs would provide at least a first line of intervention in this outbreak,” he noted.

“Our institute can grow the virus in Biosafety laboratory level 3 and screen the drugs for any anti-MERS activity. Since these drugs are approved, we know their safety and doses to use, the Korean authorities can use them off label to slow the progression and reduce the MERS viral load in patients.”

“Time is running out,” he said, because, until the government finds a solution, the only thing doctors can do for MERS patients is to maintain them on artificial respirators to safeguard vital organs.

“And this is impossible to sustain in an outbreak,” he noted.

The ministry has so far done a lousy job at both containing and sharing information about MERS with the public.

Korea has the largest number of MERS cases among non-Middle Eastern countries. Twenty-five people were confirmed infect — two of whom have died — and more than 750 people have been quarantined at ministry-designated hospitals or ordered to stay at home without contacting others.

“I think, for the first time, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is being tested for real,” he said. “It clearly shows that there is a big difference between filing paperwork and having teams ready to deploy.

“It is hard to estimate how big the damage will be, given that Korea has no experience in dealing with such epidemics,” he said.

Before coming to Korea last year, Djaballah worked at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York as a researcher mainly on cancer and infectious diseases for 12 years.

(Source: KoreaTimes.co.kr)

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